I started to write in response to your call for testimony a few days ago. Late last night (Nov 25) I was getting close to signing off on my well-considered, nicely expressed thoughts and sending them to you. But this morning, checking whether I'd honestly written what I honestly thought, and having read the latest instalment of your chat with Happi/Gisela (Nov 24/25), I got to thinking…and I noticed, not for the first time, that not having read Saundarananda, I was at a disadvantage.
I’ve read the verses as they’ve appeared each day and sped through one or two finished cantos, but I’ve not read the whole thing from beginning to end or, I confess, given it that much thought. I have been listening, but not always intently. I regret that I can’t tell you that Saundarananda has helped my practice, given me great insights, or knocked my socks off in any way – not that there haven’t been moments of admiration and recognition. I regret not having been affected by Saundarananda because it’s clear that Ashvaghosha’s poem means a lot to you. As they say in these parts, I ain't gonna lie - the truth is, I’ve not been moved by Ashvaghosha’s very skilful, very ancient poem one way or the other.
But your response to Gisela, and hers to you, made me ask myself what I, as a man, thought of the striver's tirade against women. And that led me to reconsider the testimony I’d written, the gist of which was (among other things) that a man like Ashvaghosha, an ancient Indian Buddhist renunciate would say that, wouldn’t he? Just like he has the striver recommend focussed meditative practices (nimittam) such as following the breath, putting attention between the eyebrows and the inhibition of sexual desire by ruminating on rotting female flesh; that's what they did in them days - some still do. But I hadn’t properly asked myself the question ‘Why, if the striver’s advice – the advice of a sincere practitioner - was such good advice, didn’t it work for Nanda? Why would Ashvaghosha want us to see such a highly recommended method for fashioning buddhas fail?’ And I realised that as I hadn’t yet read Suandarananda, not as a story should be read, it was no surprise that the irony you’ve insisted is present in much of the poem might have eluded me.
And then I thought: Well, to an ancient Indian renunciate like Ashvaghosha the striver is merely a man; a striver - but the Buddha is The Buddha, a kind of god; a being who has transcended striving. As a poet and dramatist, Ashvaghosha has got to give the Buddha something fancy to do for a climax or we've got a dull story, no difference between a striver and a buddha and no mahayana. Then: 'Where did that come from,' I wondered - 'mahayana'? Why did that word pop into my head? And so I didn’t know until this morning - until I googled "Ashvaghosha/mahayana" - what every schoolboy knows, that Ashvaghosha is the first Mahayana poet. Although Wiki says he isn't. Whether he is or he isn't, I was led to re-consider your insistence, which I had found unconvincing, that by showing the striver’s method as ineffective, at least as regards Nanda, Ashvaghosha may be pointing to another way; a better way.
That I could have been about to commit myself to an uninformed and ill-considered opinion makes me feel pretty stupid, a bit too eager to come when called; a bit too eager to be right and be seen to be right. But the fact that I stopped myself short makes me not quite so stupid, I like to think...or perhaps demonstrates just how very right I want to be. As soon as you've finished translating it, I’m going to read Saundarananda properly. I may still feel that Richard Gombrich is right about the meaning of nimittam; I may still feel that Ashvaghosha had the striver expound much that he, Ashvaghosha, considered sound Buddhist theory and good Buddhist practice. I may regret having said this much here and now. Ainsi va la vie.
I suppose this is the first part of my testimony, Mike. Whether or not I’ll have anything further to say on the subjects of irony, sex, the true dharma, vehicles great and small or what Ashvaghosha really meant, I do want to say a little more about your blog and your translation. I’ll get back to you soon.
As someone who does, on occasion, tell his friends “Yes, I suppose I am a Buddhist… But there are lots of different kinds, you know!” I’ve been reluctant to respond to your request for testimony for fear of disappointing you (see testimony part one) and for fear of not being up to it; of not knowing very much about Sanskrit, Ashvaghosha or Buddhism, and not much about myself, an ex-junkie who many years after reading about Zen Buddhism and dreaming of enlightenment found out he could actually give it a go. But it is appropriate to respond, if only to thank you for the effort you’ve made every day for these past months and years. I’ve already given you some reactions to the poem – to the limited extent that I’m familiar with it. Here are some more thoughts - about your translation and your blog.
As a fellow student of Sanskrit it’s clear to me that your translation is excellent. It's faithful to the Sanskrit text, elegant, economical, and easy to read. To the best of my recollection you’ve never claimed that your translation is right, but you must have a feeling that it isn’t so very wrong, or why would you bother? Just to aim - as an expression of the means-whereby - may be a good thing, but to aim and hit the target surely can’t be a bad thing, and in my opinion you have hit the target time after time. In my opinion, you’ve every right - perhaps I should say it's not inappropriate - to be proud of the gold you’ve mined and to want to show it to others, great big bit of nothing that it is.
Your blog comments, however much you might protest, have been an essential part of your project, certainly for me. The comments are what draw me to your blog every day. You're a good writer. You often make me think and you often make me laugh. Having no real experience of Alexander Technique much of what you say about it can have no real meaning for me, but you have explained something of what AT is and what it means to you in such a way that I can see how it must be relevant to what we are; to what we do and how we do it. And so AT can’t be a million miles away from the Buddhadharma and the various other truths. AT aside, it’s your ongoing struggle to be honest with yourself and other people that is not merely entertaining to voyeuristic Buddhists looking for some excitement, but, I hope, is valuable to anyone interested in the self. If the Buddhadharma is about anything useful, it cannot be merely a model of how we should be, but must be a way of seeing how we are, and that's something you acknowledge.
Maybe there are differences between what the Buddha, Ashvaghosha, Dogen and Gudo Nishijima taught. Maybe they're not teaching the same thing. If that's so, I don't see it as a problem. I can’t deny that I find similarities between the many different Buddhisms and other teachings like science reassuring, satisfying my desire to be right and to feel safe; to have laid claim to a view which is true for all people at all times and in all places. But no view can be that. So I'm content to understand that the true dharma, the truth, is beyond views - and there is no end to the different forms of its expression.
Thanks a lot, Mike, for deciding to do this great big bit of nothing, sticking at it, and doing it so well.
Slowly reading Saundarananda...